By Séamus Leonard
After last weekend’s heart-stopping 4-3 Premier League victory over Swansea City, Liverpool now looks forward to a trip to the south coast to face a Southampton side that has proven something of a ‘bogey’ side for Brendan Rodgers ever since he was appointed as manager of the Merseysiders.
Southampton won the reverse fixture at Anfield in September 1-0 courtesy of a Dejan Lovren goal, and that defeat remains the only time Liverpool has been beaten at home this season. The Saints were also victorious when the sides met at St Mary’s last season. That 3-1 defeat last March was one of the lowest points of Rodgers’ reign to date, but his charges recovered from the setback to go unbeaten in the last eight games of the season.
That late-season flourish (which, admittedly, included four draws) was not enough to lift Liverpool any higher than seventh in the table. Just under 12 months later, Liverpool’s prospects are looking a whole lot brighter. Since Liverpool is currently sitting in the fourth and final Champions League spot, a win on Saturday would move the Reds into the top three, as third-placed Manchester City is scheduled to face Sunderland on Sunday in the Capital One Cup final.
Another three points is also vital when you take into consideration that Liverpool will have to wait two weeks until its next outing – a small game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. How the game against Southampton pans out will have a huge bearing on morale in the period running up to that mouthwatering March 16 encounter.
Liverpool was boosted with the return of midfielder Lucas Leiva and center back Mamadou Sakho to training this week. However, neither player is expected to be ready to make a return to competitive action this early.
In an unusual move, Rodgers has insisted Daniel Agger will start at center back at St Mary’s. The Danish defender was substituted with the score at 3-3 last weekend, with Kolo Toure coming on for the closing stages against Swansea. Rodgers downplayed the significance of Agger’s withdrawal, pointing to the result as a justification for what he says was a tactical switch. Here’s hoping Agger responds positively to his manager’s public backing, as the former Brondby player has not been at his best since his return from a calf injury.
In his defense, though, no one in a red jersey did themselves particularly proud from a defensive viewpoint against the Swans. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet’s steadfast unwillingness to come off his line for any ball is becoming a more serious issue with each passing game, while Martin Skrtel gave away a needless penalty to allow Wilfried Bony to equalize from the spot just minutes into the second half. But aside from the many individual errors, the amount of time and space Swansea was allowed on the ball was an indictment of the whole Liverpool team. The Reds are at their best when they press opponents high up the pitch, but the energy and discipline to implement that gameplan was painfully absent last Sunday.
Rodgers has been keen to accentuate the positives emanating from the Swansea game, but it is a worry that he doesn’t seem in any way close to solving the ongoing defensive issues that are a serious threat to Liverpool’s hopes of finishing as high up the table as possible.
It does seem a little overly critical to be picking holes in Liverpool’s 12th home win in 14 league games this season, but it is because Rodgers & Co are in such an enviable position in the table that fans don’t want to see the concession of further sloppy and soft goals undermine what could be an extremely successful season.
Jordan Henderson’s winning goal and his all-round performance last weekend underlined how much progress the dynamic midfielder has made this year, while Joe Allen’s contribution after he was introduced as a substitute was critical. The side looked so much more balanced when the Wales international was on the pitch that it is hard to see how he can be left out against Southampton. Allen’s efficient use of possession and willingness to show for the ball would be vital against a home side that is likely to take the game to the visitors. Southampton’s high-tempo tactics unnerved Liverpool at Anfield, and so its manager Mauricio Pochettino would be crazy not to encourage his side to play in the same manner this weekend.
After an excellent start to the season, the Saints have suffered a couple of disappointing defeats recently that have left them in danger of having little or nothing to play for in the closing stages of the campaign. They lost to Sunderland in the FA Cup before falling 3-1 away to a resurgent West Ham in the league last weekend. With 39 points on the board, Southampton is all but assured of Premier League survival, but it would take a huge effort to clinch a Europa League spot with the likes of Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham in the way.
Southampton is usually a tough nut to crack at St Mary’s, but Aston Villa, Tottenham and Chelsea have all come away with wins from the venue this season. With strikers Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge leading the line, Liverpool will ask serious questions of the Southampton defense. The deciding factor is likely to be how well the Liverpool rearguard reacts to the tests it faces.
Southampton v Liverpool
When: Saturday, March 1, 1230 EST/1730 GMT
Where: St Mary’s, Southampton
Previous Premier League match: West Ham United 3-1 Southampton, Liverpool 4-3 Swansea City
League Position 2013-14: Southampton 9th (38 points), Liverpool 4th (56 points)
Projected Southampton Starting 11
DEF: Chambers, Fonte, Yoshida, Shaw
MID: Ward-Prowse, Cork, Schneiderlin, Lallana, Rodriguez
Subs from: Gazzaniga, K Davis, Hooiveld, Clyne, S Davis, Targett, Reed, Wanyama, Isgrove, Stephens, Do Prado, Gallagher
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Flanagan
MID: Gerrard, Henderson, Allen
FW: Sterling, Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Cissokho, Kelly, Sama, Smith, Toure, Luis Alberto, Lucas, Coutinho, Teixeira, Aspas, Moses
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard